Paul Di Filippo reviews James L. Cambias
Corsair, James L. Cambias (Tor 978-0-7653-7910-8, $25.99, 336pp, hardcover) May 2015
After fifteen years of whetting our appetites with his fine short fiction (his first story, “A Diagram of Rapture,” appeared n F&SF in the year 2000), James Cambias delivered his debut novel to us last year. A Darkling Sea, utterly accomplished and au courant, with a simultaneous respectful nod toward the classic Hal Clement-stylings of the past, immediately raked in great reviews and vaulted to the short list of contenders for the Campbell Award for best SF novel of the year, a decision I, as one of the judges, am proud to have had a small hand in. Now, just a year later, we get his second novel. The big guy is on fire! Moreover, the new book is also excellent, but in a totally different manner and mode from A Darkling Sea. That’s the mark of true talent.
To narrow down its category, Corsair is something of a near-future thriller. But in an earlier, less complicated marketplace, one might have just labeled it pure SF. It has the vibe, for instance, of Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer: engineering and entrepreneurial and romantic machinations—but without Heinlein’s less-than-rigorous time-travel angle. Toss in some military and terrorist hijinks, and the recipe is complete. Perhaps the first template for this was Bruce Sterling’s Zeitgeist in the year 2000, followed by his The Zenith Angle in 2004.
But allied albeit not identical books have also emerged recently (a nascent trend?) from the fertile brains of Alexander Jablokov (Brain Thief); Nick Harkaway (Tigerman); Michael Swanwick (Dancing With Bears); and Charles Stross (Halting State). Yet the one most in sync with Cambias is Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. Cambias delivers the same savvy, hip speculations; the mix of louche and straight-edge rivals and quirky supporting players; the realpolitik insights; and the propulsive, cosmopolitan thrills of Reamde, but does not feature Stephenson’s sometimes exhausting obsessiveness and digressiveness. If Neal Stephenson is an entire operating system for a desktop iMac, James Cambias is a sleek app for your iPhone.
Anyhow, here’s where we’re at. The year 2031 features helium-3 mining operations on the Moon, fusion power on Earth, and a radically reconfigured balance of international power and commerce and relations. Our two top protagonists work opposite sides of the fence. David Schwartz is a genius outlaw hacker who fancies himself a Star Pirate in the best tradition of Doc Smith space operas on down. Except that he does all his nefarious work with a laptop from a luxury hotel room. He is able to hijack satellites, steal shipments of helium-3, and earn himself millions of Swiss francs. But he is also childish, overconfident, lazy and boastful. Cambias does a great job rendering him as a mix of insufferable and endearing. When David takes on a new client, he does not realize that he’s dealing with terrorists who have a radically different notion of “mission success” than he does.
Arrayed against David is Elizabeth Santiago, an officer in the US military’s task force concerned with orbital security. David beats her in one encounter—awfully demoralizing, since they were once students and lovers together at MIT—causing her to lose face and get a de facto demotion to liaison on a cooperative military-civilian space shot. Intent on getting back at David, she hopes to secretly repurpose the civilian project as a means to thwart David. And she ultimately does, but in a twist that you will never see coming.
Along with these two main players we get Anne Rogers, a beach-bum kind of gal on a cruise to nowhere; the spooky assassin Vlad Draganovic, possessor of a serious mustache; Halfdan, David’s daydream-addled assistant; and Jack Bonnet, astronaut and Elizabeth’s new boyfriend. Toss in a handful of other sharply edged folks and Cambias has enough plate-spinners with various motivations to produce a plot machine that is all smoothly interlocking gears and shafts and bellows, which narrows down to a great, edge-of-your-seat, multi-thread simultaneous climax.
The intricate future Cambias predicts and delivers—just some fifteen years or so from now—is, I think, excellently done and utterly believable. He seems, knowingly or not, to be utilizing a brilliant formula devised by Charles Stross a couple of years ago, and quoted here in part: “Here’s my recipe for building a near-future world (in the context of writing an SF novel). Start with a horizon 10 years out: 85% known knowns; 10% known unknowns; 5% unknown unknowns.” If you look back fifteen years to the year 2000, and gauge the year 2015 from that vantage and use Stross’s formula to try to retrodict what we have, you’ll see it’s pretty efficient and accurate. I think Heinlein instinctively used something very similar as his template, and that why Corsair and books like it strike us as “Heinleinian.”
Cambias has a wicked sense of humor, and despite all the danger and tragedy in the book—which are not minimized—he provides at least one deep laugh per page, especially in the witty dialogue and empathetic characterizations. Consider Elizabeth’s pressured rant: “At this point, the question is just how long I am going to spend in jail. I got kicked out of the Air Force for being too aggressive, and I’m probably an alcoholic. I haven’t had sex for two months, and right now I’m emotionally distraught and under a great deal of stress and my period’s about to start. Don’t test me!”
This novel fulfills all its multiple mandates to perfection. It thrills and amuses, enlightens and surprises. James Cambias has validated every SF novel that ever featured cutlasses in space.